Jeff Anderson crusades against the Catholic Church

Minnesota lawyer has made millions suing

"Many people are here for the first time," Anderson says in his opening remarks. "I know you're quite nervous, and it's a little scary and difficult. But you're not alone. We all share a desire to protect others from what we, or a family member, or a loved one have experienced."

He then introduces former state representative John Tuma, who carried a bill to protect children and vulnerable adults through the Minnesota House last year. Now he's working as a lobbyist and will spend time pushing a bill designed to extend the statute of limitations for Minnesota minors so they can sue for up to 30 years after they turn 18. Currently, if a person was abused before they came of age, they must sue by the time they are 24. "It would be one of the longest statutes, both civil and criminal," Tuma says later. "So there will be opposition from school districts, churches, and counseling organizations. But we are building broad support in both houses, and the more people that come forward to tell their stories, the better chance we have."

It's this sort of litigious legislation that most terrifies the Catholic Church, which claims to already be in a fiscal crisis because of the current avalanche of civil suits. Officials from the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, saying they have to work with Anderson and other members of SNMN, did not want to comment on the effort. But Joe Maher, founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii (for the good of the priesthood), insists that opening the door wider for attorneys like Anderson will only result in an increasingly unmanageable caseload for both sides.

Diana Watters

Maher thinks it's naive for anyone to believe that civil attorneys who crave such a policy shift aren't just salivating at the bottom line. "Civil attorneys like Jeff Anderson have a responsibility to look at each individual and make a determination, an authentic determination--to find out whether or not an accusation has merit before they file a suit," he says. "And it's already impossible to do that. They meet with someone for a few minutes, lump allegations together, throw lawsuits at the wall, and see what sticks. In the meantime, men's lives are being ruined. They don't care. And if they say they know that everyone they have targeted is guilty, they're lying to you or to themselves.

"When attorneys go to the media with this stuff now, everyone they sue is guilty until proven innocent, and that's neither just nor fair."

Tuma scoffs at such criticisms. The Catholic Church has brought the crisis on itself, he says, and brawlers like Anderson have every right to go after it, in the courtroom and on the six o'clock news.

To promote today's event, Anderson has invited the local media to a lunchtime press conference and photo op. In preparation, conference organizers bought dozens of teddy bears and piled them in front of a makeshift podium. Shortly before noon, those who dare are asked to come forward, briefly tell their story, and grab a teddy bear to show solidarity. (Later, everyone will be encouraged to take their stuffed animal to the state capitol, to use as a calling card with their local representatives.) "What do we have?" Anderson says as he surveys the crowd. "We have the power of the truth. What do they have? Money."

An hour later, people are still coming forward. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg," a former nun testifies. There isn't a dry eye in the room.

Suddenly Doe, who has been staring at the table in front of him for nearly an hour, rises and walks slowly to the podium. Wiping his eyes with a shredded Kleenex, he speaks the words that until today he'd only uttered behind closed doors: "I'm a victim and a survivor."

Anderson swells with pride.

"I just got wrapped up in things, I guess," Doe tells me later. "I felt a part of it for once. And I'll tell you something: If it wouldn't have been for Jeff, I wouldn't have gone up there. But I really think this means something to him. I just pray he doesn't let me down. I don't know if I could take that."

A week after the conference, Anderson is back in his office working the phones, preaching the word, riding a high. "Did you see that?" he asks rhetorically. "[Doe] just got up there and said, I'm not going to take this shit anymore. I'm telling you, man, I've seen it before. That guy's going to start his own support group. He'll be giving speeches in two months."

As he's talking, the phone rings; it's a fellow attorney, working with Anderson on a case involving a number of priests from an embattled diocese that hopes to settle things in mediation. However, the defendants' attorney is reluctant to bring any lay people to the table. He believes the church should be allowed to clean its own house. Anderson, who is losing his patience, begins to pace the room, shouting into the speakerphone, working up a sweat.

"Here's what you can tell them," he says. "I'm going to be like Gandhi today. But it's a blue light special, man. And when the time runs out, I'm going back to being Attila the Hun."

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